Campaign Trading Cards

1896 Trade Card
1888 Trade Card

To advertise your bread, laundry powder or clothing shop, perhaps you could include an image of Hillary Clinton or John McCain and an American flag in the background. If even bad publicity is good publicity, you’ll certainly get noticed all right, by the press and by the summons.

Yet, that is exactly what was natural in the latter part of the 19th century. Merchants would routinely issue trade cards, the size of baseball cards or postcards, with their advertisement clearly visible right next to the presidential candidates (or their particular choice) seeming to ‘endorse’ their product.

The one above shows the general election of 1888 featuring Grover Cleveland and his running mate Allan Thurman for the Democratic Party and Benjamin Harrison and Levi P. Morton for the Republican Party. The flag of the United States, I thought, was a particularly nice touch. Brought to you by: “F. & M. Herbs, Manufacturers of Tobacco, Cigars and Snuff.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Harrison and Morton won, by the way, even though Cleveland received the most popular votes. Sound familiar?

If you needed new suspenders, you’ll likely want the new improved President Suspender because the 1896 candidates for president William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan were being introduced to the new version by Miss Liberty herself. See what I mean about the patriotic themes of these cards.

Quite a few were even ‘mechanicals’ with moving parts or ‘metamorphic’ where you can change from one candidate to another with a simple fold of the card. The latter cards are the most collectible with the former cards the most common. Values will range from $10 through $100 for the mechanicals.

It is important to note that none of the candidates were approached nor did they give approval for their images to be used in any of these advertising cards.

While sounding crass to us now, it was a way to get the voters involved in the political process. And it worked. Without the 24/7 news cycles on the internet and CNN, folks were hard pressed to know who was running for president or even what they looked like. Torch light parades, huge banners, “speechifyin'” on a hay wagon, and colorful trading cards were probably the same as the sample ballot might be from your local political organization or the League of Women Voters, without the advertising of course.

But then, how much of the 24/7 news cycle is actually worth collecting these days? Exactly.